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Maite Alberdi is one of the most important Latin-American voices in the documentary field. In 2011 she debuted with The Lifeguard (El Salvavidas). With Tea Time (La Once) in 2014, she received more than 12 international awards and a nomination for Best Ibero-American Film at the 2016 Goya Awards. Her last film The Grown-ups (Los Niños) garnered 10 international awards including at DocsBarcelona. The present documentary The Mole Agent (El Agente Topo) was already born under the good auspice of the Best Pitch at IDFA in 2017 and has been released this year 2020 at the Sundance World Cinema Documentary Competition.
Playing with format
The Mole Agent is a fiction that plays with the documentary format, or a documentary stitched together with a fictional plot. It is a stylish combination of observational documentary and film noir, but it is also a tender excuse and a harrowing reflection. An excuse inviting the audience to share time with a group of octogenarians and nonagenarians and live through the harshness of oblivion and the incomprehensible invisibility that Chilean society often grants to family members who reach these ages. A reflection that is easily extrapolated to the overwhelming majority of the wealthy West.
Romulo Aitken has a man under hire to do investigative work in nursing homes. Unfortunately, the agent suffers a disabling injury, so the agency puts up an ad to find an elder man to act as an undercover agent in a nursing home, under the pretext of finding out if a client’s mother is properly cared for. This type of hiring is common by relatives who feel guilty for having institutionalised their elders. And it is this recruitment that Alberdi was waiting to launch into the investigation.
Thus, the agency of private detective Romulo Aitken hits first serve to the film, thanks to this bizarre coincidence, providing Maite Alberdi with the plot pillar to develop the film.
The casual need for hiring leads to a comical series of interviews attended by several older men who were surprised at being able to apply for a job at their age, at which point the film bites us for the first time and reveals the position of these contenders, who still feel useful and capable, but whom society no longer considers valid.
Sergio Chamy responds to this announcement, to be finally hired as an undercover agent, and will guide the camera through the rest of the film as the lead character. The recently widowed octogenarian, clumsy with the instruments of the trade but kind and soft-voiced, turns out to have a natural charm and ends up giving the film much of its sweetness and comic relief.
An open critique
Before the intrigue and the film noir flair, a simple plot with an open critique unfold. Maite Alberdi directs the film as a carefree tightrope walker, strolling between fiction and documentary with ease, interviewing the inhabitants of the nursing home, showing bits of the daily life of residents and caregivers, and serving fantastic detective film style cuts.
The detective fantasy results in comedic sparkles and, although it may seem at times frivolous, becomes a useful artifice helping to better digest some of the most tragic scenes which, in a different context or explained in a more sober way, would surely bring tears to more than one viewer.
Chamy enters wholeheartedly committed to his role as a spy, finding his target and initiating the opportune investigations, and giving appropriate account to his employer with notes and hilarious secret communications. However, sooner rather than later he grows tired and complains about the dishonest nature of his role as an undercover agent; ends up making friends with other residents of the asylum and takes us into an intimate immersion in the tender and heartbreaking reality of the asylum’s day to day.
Maite Alberdi directs the film as a carefree tightrope walker, strolling between fiction and documentary with ease
This asylum in question is mostly inhabited by women, some of them residents for many years because they were never married and considered useless. It does not escape Alberdi’s attentive vision to reflect on the cruelty of patriarchy and Catholicism, omnipresent agents shaping the lives of the women of these asylums.
The despair of the residents who rarely receive a call or visit and the general feeling of abandonment end up irritating Chamy, who is fortunate enough to have a family that loves him and seeks his closeness.
The light demeanour of the film’s beginning, which does not try to hide an underlying sadness, is felt less and less as the plot progresses, to finally disappear almost completely when it gives way to a stark conclusion, rather sober and sad, and aims to delve into the reflection central throughout. The isolation to which certain groups in our society are condemned for being considered too dependent.
The camera work, that struggles to be omnipresent, truly shows the worth of months of presence in the nursing home to make the protagonists increasingly ignore the film crew who, if at first clearly felt a bit intimidating, in the end, manages to be almost invisible, often rewarding us with scenes of surprising intimacy.